Big People Toys to Influence Public Policy & Behavior

Volkswagen just launched The Fun Theory, an online, off-brand marketing campaign.

The first two projects are:

  • Piano Staircase [youtube]
    A subway staircase is converted to an electronic piano — ala Tom Hanks in Big — to encourage taking the stairs rather than the escalator.
  • The World’s Deepest Bin [youtube]
    To eliminate litter, a trash container is outfitted with sensors and speakers so falling trash triggers one of those awesome cheap electronic bomb dropping sound effects.

First of all, I wish I had thought of these. Secondly, what’s fantastic about these simple playful technologies is their implications for larger social, behavioral, and public policy issues.

Public policy is the balancing act of penalties and rewards to influence mass behavior toward some goal. Humans, of course, respond to penalties—as often by subverting them as by conforming to them. However, conversely, the rewards of most public policy systems aren’t all that enticing. We eat better and have better health and lower healthcare costs. It’s a good thing, sure, but you don’t find hoards of people fighting over access to read government nutrition guides.

So what if we go lateral or orthogonal to the normal reward system? Reward not the end goal but the immediate process of contributing to it? Blamo. Play as reward and playful technologies as enablers of public policy.


The Role of Play in Design

I recently came across two complementary takes on the interrelation of play and design.

Hank Williams at the Why Does Everything Suck? blog observes the following in his post Apple Has Learned The Importance of Play. We Should Too.:

I believe that a big part of the reason that Apple has been successful is that they figured out long ago that their products had to have the elements of joyful exploration that are the hallmarks of great toys. The concept of play is generally something associated with children, but I believe that that desire and that need never die. It is just muted by the expectations of adulthood.

The best example of this is my mother’s excitement about her new iPhone. …For her, the iPhone is hard enough to still present challenges, and yet easy enough that she can overcome them. And the payoffs are joyous. The sound, the animation, the smooth virtual physics are incredibly compelling and toy-like. But of course it is not a “toy” it is a phone. It has a real function so she could never be accused of “playing.”

In an interview entitled Paul Rand on the Play Instinct, the renowned graphic designer expounds on his view of play being integral to design. An excerpt:

Q: What is the play instinct?

A: It is the instinct for order, the need for rules that, if broken, spoil the game, create uncertainty and irresolution. “Play is tense,” says Johan Huizinga. “It is the element of tension and solution that governs all solitary games of skill.” Without play, there would be no Picasso. Without play, there is no experimentation. Experimentation is the quest for answers.

Both of these gents are reinforcing and eloquently supporting my contention that playfulness is not just something to be added to design or a design but is an inherent part of a good design process and a well-designed product, space, or experience. Given how ubiquitous technological elements are to nearly all design, thinking about playfulness and technology is… well, the entirety of my interest here.


Massively Multi-User (Playful) Interfaces

So I saw the Tigers beat the White Sox on Friday night. Great game. They won. Great company and great seats too. I’d never been to the new Comerica Park. (Incidentally, it’s disturbing to see the remnants of the old stadium down the street all tattered and hanging on amidst its demolition — it’s like a horribly maimed animal that needs to be put down but there’s no gun handy. But I digress. Back to our regularly scheduled geekery…)

A handful of interesting thoughts occurred to me:

  1. As far as The Wave goes, stadiums are essentially the single largest multi-user game interface ever developed: thousands of players interact by enacting one of two chair modes — sitting or standing.
  2. Games often spontaneously emerge from among crowds of people. Said games seem to use rules only as complex as what can be communicated by example. For instance, as already mentioned, The Wave. Or, waiting crowds of people who are given to batting around beach balls like a huge uncoordinated game of volleyball.
  3. Games — analog or digital, board or video, athletic or imaginative — are so very often multi-user.
  4. Most human-computer interfaces (HCI), except for video games, are single user. Even in workplace settings, truly simultaneous multi-user interfaces for collaboration are rare and/or rarely used. I can think of far more examples of multi-user interfaces in electronic games (think Rock Band) than I can in any other realm of human-computer interface.

As computers become more and more embedded and ubiquitous, as displays become larger, and as input means become cheaper, perhaps it will be games and playful interfaces that lead the way to developing effective multi-user interfaces for purposes other than gaming.



Play, Spirit, + Character

I just caught an episdoe of the NPR radio show Speaking of Faith. It was a rebroadcast of a show they had done at least a year earlier. It was enthralling.

» Play, Spirit, + Character [mp3]

Stuart Brown, a physician and director of the National Institute for Play, says that pleasurable, purposeless activity prevents violence and promotes trust, empathy, and adaptability to life’s complication. He promotes cutting-edge science on human play, and draws on a rich universe of study of intelligent social animals.



Rituals as Creative Play for Adults + Playful Ritual Objects

Erich Vieth makes some fascinating observations in his post Religious rituals as creative play for adults?:

Though the growing children eventually put their stuffed animals away, these animals “teach” the children symbolic meaning.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see religious and governmental rituals as extensions of the creative play of childhood. The objects of a ritual can be seen as a “transitional objects” that bridge the gap between often times disturbing real-life experiences and one’s hopes and fantasies.

Vieth brings forward to adult life author Susan Linn’s point that childhood play things embody comfort and create tangible connection to ideas and concepts (i.e. a blankie equals safety). Vieth argues that the objects of our adult rituals share similarities to childhood play things in that they embody concepts and symbolism and provide comfort in a tangible form.

Vieth’s comments got my wheels spinning. Objects are important in and to ritual. Think about it. We build entire museums around ritual objects. What would happen if we made ritual objects smart? Built their interactions to capture and enhance the ritual moment? We would be creating, in effect, adult toys (not those adult toys) — but objects with which we “play” to connect our physical experience with the symbolic, sentimental, emotional, or conceptual.

Forms a playful ritual object might take:

  • An electronic document able to replay the loops and scratches and crosses of the signatures formed upon it as well as the comments made while signing it.
  • A shovel used for a groundbreaking able to precisely record its movements in three dimensional space and then use that data to artistically interpret the event (time lapse imagery, spatial visualizations effects, etc.)
  • A jewelry box able to record and replay the sights and sounds of the moment at which the piece of jewelry (e.g. engagement ring, anniversary necklace, etc.) is given and also able to record subsequent moments at the anniversary of the gift giving. Using accelerometers, the box could likely produce a steadycam-like “first person” point-of-view and become an augmentation to the jewelry itself.